Tag Archives: Alexander O’Neal

12 days of Christmas, Day 7

There isn’t much middle ground with “The Little Drummer Boy.” Either you like it, or you don’t.

It was written in 1941 by composer Katherine Davis, who called it “Carol of the Drum.”

It became a Christmas favorite in 1958, when Harry Simeone, a popular arranger for radio, TV and film, did a new version for a 20th Century Fox record, “Sing We Now Of Christmas.” The song, which he called “The Little Drummer Boy,” was sung by a group he called the Harry Simeone Chorale.

He’d been pitched the song by fellow arranger Henry Onorati, who’d done a version a year earlier with the Jack Halloran Singers. The only problem? Dot Records didn’t get that version out in time for Christmas 1957.

The story behind the song — a poor boy who plays his drum as a gift for the baby Jesus — is timeless. All too often, though, you hear covers that lack a sense of adventure. These don’t.

Obscure early ’70s funk/soul: “Little Drummer Boy,” Lenox Avenue, from the Chess 7-inch 2101, 1970. It’s out of print. (Shared last year by Larry over at Funky 16 Corners.)

Late ’70s dance/salsa: “Little Drummer Boy,” the Salsoul Orchestra, from “Christmas Jollies,” 1976.

Late ’80s drum machines: “The Little Drummer Boy,” Alexander O’Neal, from “My Gift To You,” 1988. It’s out of print but is available digitally.

A guaguanco, a style of rumba: “The Little Drummer Boy,” Brave Combo, from “It’s Christmas, Man!” 1992. Hard to find, but available from the band or digitally.

Sweet, trippy sounds: “Little Drummer Boy,” the Dandy Warhols, from “Fruitcake,” 1997, a Capitol Records promo EP. It’s out of print. (Quite the video for it, though!) They released a different version as a single in 1994.

Sweet, reverent sounds: “Little Drummer Boy.” .38 Special, from “A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night,” 2001. Re-released in 2008 as “The Best of .38 Special: The Christmas Collection,” one of those 20th Century Masters reissues. If you seek it digitally, search for that title instead of the original.


Filed under Christmas music, December 2010

Three under the tree, Vol. 35

You know those Christmas records you can enjoy cut after cut, start to finish? We came up with three from the ’00s and three from the ’90s. Today, the ’80s.

I have no idea how I learned of today’s record when it came out in 1988. Maybe I heard something on WORT, our local indie FM radio station in Madison, Wisconsin. (WORT is celebrating its 34th birthday tonight, by the way.) Maybe I saw something on BET one night. Sorry, just can’t remember.

But every Christmas for 20 years, I’ve enjoyed “My Gift To You” by Alexander O’Neal. It’s a great mix of late ’80s funk and soul and a more traditional big band sound. O’Neal’s smooth, silky high tenor is the icing on the cake.

It’s produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — the great Flyte Tyme team.

Their lush, more traditional string and horn arrangements stand the test of time. Hear them on O’Neal’s covers of “This Christmas,” the Donny Hathaway classic, and “Winter Wonderland.”

Whether their more contemporary tunes have held up, well, that’s more subjective. You make the call on “The Little Drummer Boy,” which is funked-out and drum-programmed in the style of the day. But it works.

All from “My Gift To You,” Alexander O’Neal, 1988. It’s out of print and hard to find. It still sounds good to me, from start to finish.

The odd thing? I don’t think I’d heard anything by O’Neal before I heard this, and I don’t have any other records by O’Neal, even now. Yet I can’t imagine a Christmas without Alexander O’Neal.

A couple of other good long-players from the ’80s: “A Very Special Christmas,” from 1987, has become the standard against which every all-star Christmas compilation is judged. “An Austin Rhythm and Blues Christmas,” from 1986, features scorchers by Lou Ann Barton and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a couple of my Texas faves.

Tomorrow, a good one from the ’70s.

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Filed under December 2009, Sounds

Three under the tree, Day 12

It’s snowing outside. It started about 5 p.m. It’s going to snow for about 24 hours. When it’s done, we’ll likely have close to a foot of new snow.


When it snowed like that last December, this is what our street looked like. That, my friends, is a winter wonderland.

And that, my friends, is our theme for the next couple of days.

“Winter Wonderland” was written in 1934, with music by Felix Bernard and lyrics by Richard B. Smith. The story goes that Smith wrote the song after admiring a snow-covered park in his hometown of Honesdale, Pennsylvania.

It was first recorded that year by Richard Himber and his Hotel Carelton Orchestra. Later that year, Guy Lombardo and His Orchestra had a hit with it. It really rocked the charts in 1946, when the Andrews Sisters (backed by Lombardo), Johnny Mercer and Perry Como all had hits with it.

It has since become one of the most familiar holiday tunes, even though it’s more about winter than about Christmas.

The ’80s were a good decade for “Winter Wonderland.” Three of my favorite versions came out then.


“Winter Wonderland,” Steve Goodman, from “Artistic Hair,” 1983. Recorded live, he forgets the lyrics, then improvises some unforgettable new lyrics. This otherwise isn’t a Christmas album, but it’s certainly worth getting for live versions of “Elvis Imitators,” “Chicken Cordon Bleus,” “City of New Orleans” and “You Never Even Call Me By My Name.”


“Winter Wonderland,” Eurythmics, from “A Very Special Christmas,” 1986. These days, this is the most frequently heard version of the song. And why not? Annie Lennox’s voice is terrific, as is the percussion by Dave Stewart and Richard Feldman. Drum machines, to be sure, but entirely appropriate.


“Winter Wonderland,” Alexander O’Neal, from “My Gift To You,” 1988. It’s out of print. Buy it if you ever see it. This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas records. The smooth R&B and soul singer goes with a big band arrangement on this one, recorded at the peak of his U.S. success.

It’s still gonna look like a winter wonderland around these parts on Wednesday, so stop back for more.

One more thing: I’d like to do some all-request posts, but I need your requests! We have some, but there’s room under the tree for more.


Filed under Christmas music, December 2008, Sounds

It’s New Year’s Eve! Stand back!


It wasn’t until we owned our first house that Janet and I felt grown up enough to host a New Year’s Eve party.

Until then, we were out at the bars with all the other amateurs on New Year’s Eve. We were young enough that New Year’s Eve was essentially one big high school or college reunion night.

But as 1988 turned into 1989 — as best we can remember — we hosted a New Year’s Eve party at our rambling old house on the east side of Madison, Wisconsin. We had lots of food, drink, friends and party favors.

Our lingering memory of that party is that of one of our friends — who shall remain nameless — holding court in our dining room, holding party poppers and blasting away.

“Stand back!” our friend would shout. Then our friend would pull the string — pop! — and shower the room with confetti.

Ever since, every time we see a party popper … “Stand back!”

Or, every time New Year’s Eve rolls around … “Stand back!”

Having a New Year’s Eve party? You may want these tunes for your mix.


“Thank You for a Good Year,” Alexander O’Neal, from “My Gift to You,” 1988.

Or one of these three versions of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” That familiar tune was written in 1947 by Frank Loesser, who also wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”


A bluesy instrumental version by King Curtis, from “Soul Christmas,” 1990. Recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York on Oct. 23, 1968. That’s a young Duane Allman on guitar.


A swinging big-band version by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, from “Dig That Crazy Christmas,” 2005.


A laid-back acoustic version by Mindy Smith, from “My Holiday,” 2007.

Oh, and be sure to get plenty of party poppers.

Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.: The photo of the party popper was taken by Hazel Jones of the UK and was posted online in July 2007 at the Museum of Temporary Art.

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Filed under December 2007, Sounds

Three under the tree, Vol. 22

Tonight, we swing! Our three under the tree really have it going on.


“What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’?),” Louis Prima and His New Orleans Gang, 1936, from “Santa Claus Blues,” a 1988 compilation on Jass Records. It’s out of print.

This is the oldest tune in my collection, but you can get a sense of the great Louis Prima as a hipster even in this early piece.

Prima was just 25 when he cut this tune, having just hit it big in the New York nightclubs. Not long afterward, he headed west to Los Angeles, where he worked until becoming a Las Vegas institution in the ’50s.


“Jingle Bells,” Duke Ellington, 1962, from “Jingle Bell Jazz,” a 1985 compilation that combines two Columbia albums, “Jingle Bell Jazz” and “God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen.” This tune is from the former.

This starts a little slowly, then picks up the pace when the 12-piece horn section jumps in. That, of course, is Billy Strayhorn on the piano. Recorded in New York City on June 21, 1962. (I turned 5 years old that day.)


“Winter Wonderland,” Alexander O’Neal, from “My Gift to You,” 1988.

No ’80s funk on this one. Rather, it’s an energetic big-band arrangement right out of the ’60s, with O’Neal’s smooth tenor rising and dropping to keep pace with the horns. Lee Blaskey — who also worked with Janet Jackson — produced, arranged and conducted this swinging backing track.

Enjoy. More to come. Time grows short for requests, so get ’em in.


One more thing: Today was a most excellent day at the record store. Sitting at the front of a stack on the floor was “Snoopy and His Friends,” the 1967 album by the Royal Guardsmen. My friendly used vinyl merchant agreed to part with it for a most reasonable price.

If you picked up “Snoopy’s Christmas” earlier, circle back to Vol. 1 and get it again. This rip is better, with a richer sound.

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Filed under Christmas music, December 2007, Sounds